Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Spontaneous but Focused: Duende and David J's 'Oracle Of The Horizontal'

Duende: Laura Willem, Joel McCune, Scott Sanford, Jeff Howitt.
seated: David J.
photo by Trever Long

Four years ago, in October, Bauhaus-leader and modern goth-rock pioneer David J. came to town to perform an intimate and exclusive living room show. In attendance were the four members of Detroit-based experimental rock outfit Duende. The story we'll unfold in this piece is the creation of a new album that combines both Duende and David J, titled Oracle of the Horizon (on Glass Modern Records). You can attend a listening party for this momentous album on Friday, Nov 16th at the Ghost Light INFO. 

The album is a surge to the senses, a fever-dream torrent of phantasmagoric sounds arranged as beautifully psychedelic nocturnes. These are waltzes for the astral planes and suites for shaken and souls...and rallying cries for the weird wraiths wending near the backs of our minds.

But back to that living room show...

 Now, around Detroit, Halloween is a big deal. But so is Bauhaus! Several psychedelic-shredders and garage-geeks that make up the local music scene here are big fans of David J., and you know we're all rocking "Bela Lugosi's Dead," when October comes around. Fatefully, that October night of four years ago found not only Duende's singer/guitarist Jeff Howitt, drummer Laura Willem, and lead guitarist Joel McCune, but also Matthew Pomroy (chief entertainment coordinator for the notoriously sensational and large-scale Halloween-masquerade known as Theatre Bizarre), and prominent Detroit jazz musician and bandleader Joshua James....

...what happened next was David J. basically made Detroit a second home. Not only did he wind up performing at the following Theatre Bizarre, but he built a collaborative relationship with James, recording an album with the Theatre Bizarre Orchestra. And it just so happened that Pomroy lived right next door to Howitt and Willem... When David J. returned to town to perform with the TBO, "...we would chit chat in our adjoining backyards," Willem said. "In 2016, we played the infamous Theatre Bizarre party and David came and watched our whole set, right up front! A few days later, he messaged us and said he enjoyed it. So... we then asked him if he'd be interested in collaborating...!"

"...there was a point when we realized it wasn't going to just be one session in the studio," recalls McCune. "When David (at Damien Youth's urging) decided more songs needed to happen, and that a full record was in order, the project became larger than its members! It has definitely taken on a life of it's own, and the story isn't over yet..., I don't believe."

Bassist Scott Sanford said that Bauhaus was a huge influence on his bass playing, (he also plays lead guitar in local rock band Pewter Cub). "David is very inspiring. I can speak for myself, and I think everyone in the band, was nervous to work with him initially. After the initial jitters David made us feel very comfortable. He has a great ear production wise and really elevated the songs with his ideas for arrangements and auxiliary instrumentation."

The album art that you're peeking in that bandcamp streamer up there shows David as the character he adopted for Theatre Bizarre Orchestra: M.C. Nightshade. Joshua James became a contributing instrumentalist in the recording sessions for Oracle. "...but the first song we put together, lyrically, as 'Get Out Of My Dreams,'" recalled Howitt. "...…”  It’s not unlike another mythos of the Ouroboros. The snake devouring itself to create itself eternally. Damien Youth did the cover art. David had gone to New Orleans not long after our initial session with him, and it was Damien that was like, “You need to keep these songs together for an album.” David was going to use “Alice In The Windscreen” for his upcoming solo record, and the other three songs were going to be on a single or interspersed into our newly finished DUENDE! album. It’s still unreleased at the moment by the way."

Even though this was obviously going to be a distinctive project for Duende, McCune said they still developed the songs in "true Duende fashion...! An idea here, a snippet of old basement jam there, looseness, and the fearlessness required to go into the recording studio "semi prepared" and see what happens! I think 'Motor City Squeeze' and 'In the Shadow of 45' were the only finished musical ideas we took in. And we rehearsed nothing with David beforehand! Duende works very well under this kind of pressure, and David just stepped right into the fray quite naturally!"

Sanford said that they created the music for ('Get Out Of My Dreams') to fit the mood of those lyrics that Howitt and David had collaborated on via messenger. "...the rest of the album followed that initial mood. All of the music for the album was written as a group, collaboratively," said Sanford. "We created the songs at practices. Some were actually written (at least partially) years earlier while some were created specifically for the project."

But this writer, and a few others who have had some pre-release listenings have picked up on a bit a darker "shade" to the songs. "...As for the darkness of the songs," McCune said, "...sometimes the songs just develop themselves, and they wanted to be dark, brooding, introspective, even wicked at times. Oracle is not light listening, but it wasn't planned out that way."

Willem agrees that going darker wasn't intentional, or conscious. "...we just channeled the songs and opportunity," she said. McCune mentioned 'Motor City Squeeze,' but Willem comments further, referencing the lyrics of that song. "I think of that as David's love story of Detroit..., of the people and places." She goes on to elucidate a song like the epic title track. "...the lyrics were written by David in the 80s while he was on an acid.  He requested 13 minutes of music, which we were able to provide!  What I think is pretty incredible about this song is that Duende got the song in one take and then David did the vocals in one take, made me think the universe was rooting for us on that one!  It sounds like we planned it.  Especially, when David says “AWAKE” about halfway through the song, but it really was magic."

Howitt says that his own lyrics can be a little more symbolic, with accidental melodies. "It's more enunciatively presented, and conversationally, stream of consciousness," he said.  He adds, poetically, about the experience of working with David J..."You walk into...or wake into David’s lyrics. See it!  Listen to “Alice Through The Windscreen..." (which features James). " spend a chapter in there. You breathe with it. On this record he primarily does spoken word, except for, “Motor City Squeeze”, where he did a near spoken take, and another with almost a Joe Strummer vibe to it. I was like, “Put a little duende in there.” Leave it a bit unrestrained. Raw. With “In The Shadow Of 45”, which David plays harmonica on, and, came up with the title, after I recited the lyrics. He was like, “Now, what are you saying?”. “It’s the right time to jump off the bridge/With whatever you have/He’ll think it is/They don’t always shoot/But they don’t have to miss/Whatever you have/You better keep it hid” The notion of, it’s better to, as some First Nation peoples did, to jump off a cliff rather than give yourself to an oppressor if necessary. Rumination’s on sacrifice and dignity...!"

But to return to the perspective of, say, the guitar...a strictly musical perspective..., McCune said: "...for me there was not a lot of conscious inspiration, but more subconscious designs. Musically there wasn't a lot of pre-planning. I prefer that. It allows you to surprise yourself. There are a lot of mistakes and accidents on this record that we used to form the song structures. It allows a song to end up somewhere you never would have "written" it to go!"

David brought in not only Joshua James, but notable producer (and leader of His Name Is Alive) Warren Defever. "(Defever) came into the studio to work on the last two songs – Alice Through the Windscreen and Oracle.  One of the first things he said was “You have something against bass?”  We laughed.  And Joshua James played saxophone (bari and tenor) and other noises. He also brought into Dave Vassella (trumpet) and John Raleeh (trombone).  They were in the studio for only a couple hours, but they added so much, especially to Alice Trough the Windscreen.  The horns in that song alone made it feel epic, but then they organized a gorgeous backing vocal melody which is at the end of the song.  Watching them work was amazing – our mouths were agape!"

Sanford said his big takeaway from the experience is that "... some things in life do not occur by chance. Working with David is a major milestone for us as a band and as people. I think this was all meant to happen. The songs that seemed to come from nowhere might have been out there in the cosmos waiting for us all along."

Howitt noted that Defever and David go way back, to when they met during the Love & Rockets heydays. Defever contributed some mellotron to Oracle, but also brought a Fender Bass VI. "'s a six string bass tuned to E to E, and an octave below regular guitar tuning with Jaguar style electronics. “It’s one of the best worst Instruments,” as Warren put it, “and probably never caught on because of the terrible name.” David J plays it on “Motor City Squeeze”.  Warren, who had heard “Alice”, and called it a “Fuzz Symphony”, not only played Mellotron on that track, but also “Oracle”.  Joshua James came in with a Sun Ra vibe, wailing his bari and tenor saxophones on “Oracle”. It just puts the song outside any time period or what we’ve done as a band. Very in the moment. Spontaneous but focused."

"Collaborating was great," said Willem. "I think we (Duende) were pretty nervous and excited.  David had some ideas for songs and lyrics. In the studio, I found David really easy to work with.  Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how he would be in the studio and once we got going, I felt very comfortable with him.  It was interesting watching him mix – he really dissected the various instruments and vocal tracks, yet worked efficiently."


McCune said that much of this whole experience is beyond words for him. Both David J./Bauhaus and Love & Rockets are musical heroes of his... "Bauhaus was, for me, what people must have felt about Bowie in the seventies," said this local master of stormy/atmospheric guitar work. "They were from another planet! They didn't break musical rules as much as show the irrelevance of them, while utilizing them to their advantage at the same time! They were the freaks that allowed a young me to embrace my freakness as it were! So to end up making a record with David, was (and is) beyond surreal." In a way, for McCune and Duende's bassist Scott Sanford (who also plays guitar), this feels like a reward for decades of tirelessly playing music. And, McCune said, a "surreal" award after a life spent " least attempting originality and trying to accomplish something different than standard songwriting and musical redundancy."
Jeff :  I am one of those people who believe that though we may live linearly, all time, every moment is happening simultaneously. David J mussing about his storage unit, and a book he wrote in opens to that poem. That moment decades ago was somehow connected to now. It’s not deja-vu. It’s beyond concepts of ancestors. We are our ancestors. Informing and deforming us as we are them with visions and terrors of the future. You might have been working on something for three hundred years, thirty years before it manifests. You read David’s book, Who Killed Mr. Moonlight?, and his relation beyond time with Genesis P-Orridge through Aleister Crowley, you start to sense how the work refines itself.

David J., meanwhile, is on tour: the "Ruby Rising" tour with Peter Murphy, celebrating 40 years of Bauhaus. The hope is that when Bauhaus tours through in February, some plans to perform behind this new material will solidify. "David Barker of Glass Modern Records has been immensely insightful and guided this project to completion," said Howitt. "He put out early records by bands I love... Oracle is in good company! There's a new (Duende) record that we finished just as we started (Oracle). What essentially times out to a double-disc...but it needs to have a needle dropped on it and played loud. We recorded (the new, yet-to-be-released album) with Tony Hamera (of The Blueflowers); he also engineered the Oracle sessions."

Willem said she's also excited about the double album's worth of new Duende material. "We have another video (for 'Out Of My Dreams') which was filmed in the Bohemian National Home in Detroit by Reginald will be dark, eerie, and Victorian. We can't wait to see it."

You can hear Oracle next Friday, Nov 16th, at the Ghost Light. 

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